Charles Martin, 844-3698


AUBURN --Auburn University research into the genetic composition of broiler chickens could lead to a superior breeding stock and provide economic benefits to the poultry industry worldwide.

Scientists at Auburn hope to identify genes that affect disease resistance, thus allowing primary breeder companies to remove chickens with undesirable genes when choosing the elite breeding stock. Then, within four years, all birds at the broiler grower level would be significantly more resistant to that disease.

The weekly impact on the Alabama economy could exceed $1.7 million, considering that every dollar in poultry sales generates $5 statewide, says Fred Hoerr, director of the Alabama State Diagnostic Laboratory at Auburn.

The Alabama poultry industry could gain $340,000 a week, based on a 1 percent improvement in broiler livability from 96 percent to 97 percent. Each week, more than 17 million 4- to 6-pound broilers are processed with an average dressed carcass value of about $2 each. "

This is a long-term project in its infancy, but the potential in five, 10 or 20 years is quite substantial," Hoerr said. "We are using a state-of-the-art approach to selecting poultry to improve the broiler stock. We want to identify specific genes that affect disease resistance."

Poultry meat is the No. 1 animal protein in the American diet, says Hoerr, hoping this joint research effort will help the poultry industry maintain that ranking 20 years from now.

Controlling disease through current vaccinations and antibiotics is becoming more difficult. As a result, the AU College of Veterinary Medicine is providing a yearly $150,000 grant for three years as part of its Food Animal Health Disease Research program. The project is coordinated with the AU Department of Poultry Science and the state diagnostic laboratory.

"This is an investment in Alabama's future," said Timothy Boosinger, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine. "The grant and our combined efforts will further establish Auburn University as an internationally known center of excellence in poultry research."

The current focus is on the genetic makeup of the broiler, specifically the major histocompatibility gene complex, says Sandra Ewald, professor of pathobiology of the veterinary college. She adds that Auburn is the only institution with technology to identify MHC genes in broilers.

"We already know that MHC influences a number of diseases in layers and we have the ability to detect and analyze for those genes in broilers," she said. "We are also looking at other genes that could influence disease resistance."

Researchers are particularly concerned with infectious bursal disease, which affects a chicken's immune system. Most chickens in a commercial environment are exposed to IBD, and new virulent strains have recently appeared in Europe, Hoerr said.

"Vaccinations only control the severity, but our research findings could possibly give the poultry industry a better long-term strategy in dealing with IBD," he said. "Within a few years, the diseases new strains will most likely appear internationally."

In addition to studying IBD, the researchers are looking into chicken anemia virus, infectious bronchitis, and whether vaccination for Marek's disease predisposes chickens to other diseases. Ewald added that MHC genes will possibly affect how chickens respond to vaccines.

New drugs are another aspect that scientists are studying, especially in connection with IBD and the emergence of a new tumor-causing virus known as avian leukosis virus subgroup J, for which no vaccine exists.

"These potential new drugs and the genetic research at Auburn will have benefits worldwide," Hoerr said. "It demonstrates the College of Veterinary Medicine's commitment to agricultural issues. It speaks well of Auburn University as an agricultural institution and for being a valuable resource for the people of Alabama."

The veterinary college's grant will be instrumental in bringing together several investigators to focus on poultry diseases. Ewald says Warren Johnson, who retired from the Department of Poultry Science in 1996, laid the groundwork for the current efforts.

The research team includes Christine Dykstra, Vicky van Santen, Heidi Hoff and Jim Hudson of the College of Veterinary Medicine; Edzard van Santen of Agronomy and Soils; Emily Livant of the Department of Poultry Science; and Hoerr and Ewald. In addition to this grant, Bob Norton and Mike Eckman of Poultry Science are working with cellulitis and necrotic enteritis.

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CONTACT:Ewald, 844-2722 ; or Boosinger, 844-3694.